“The morning that Mendel Muskatev awoke to find his desk was gone, his room was gone and the sun was gone, he assumed he had died. This worried him, so he said the prayer for the dead, keeping himself in mind. Then he wondered if one was allowed to do such a thing, and worried instead that the first thing he had done upon being dead was sin.”
So begins the Kafkaesque story within the story, “The Twenty-seventh Man” – the first of nine tales told by Nathan Englander in his debut collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” (Vintage International, 2000). “The Twenty-seventh Man” is a thinly disguised imagining of the all-too-real atrocity known as “Night of the Murdered Poets.” On Aug. 12, 1952, at Stalin’s orders, a firing squad in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison murdered 13 prominent Soviet Jews, among them five well-known Yiddish writers: David Bergelson, Itzik Fefer, David Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko and Peretz Markish.
Though Englander bends the historical truth to his artistic purposes, he offers the attentive reader a number of clues that his point of departure is the blood-soaked event of Aug. 12, 1952. His very first paragraph anticipates the grim climactic scene, which Stalin, with utter indifference to the human suffering his orders will cause, has orchestrated from his private residence:
“The orders were given from Stalin’s country house at Kuntsevo. He relayed them to the agent in charge. ...The accused were to be apprehended the same day, arrive at the prison gates at the same moment, and ... be sent off to their damnation in a single rattling burst of gunfire.”
By stating that one of his characters was “a target of the first serious verbal attacks on the cosmopolitans back in ’49” and quickly adding that “[three] years later they came for him,” the author is letting us know that the year is 1952.
Yet another detail adds specificity to the historical context that informs Englander’s fiction: one of the characters claims that he was “a principal member of the (Jewish) Anti-Fascist Committee,” established in August 1941, not long after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941; members of the Soviet Jewish Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia joined the group in an attempt to gain the support of fellow Jews the world over for the Soviet war effort. Years later, Stalin chose to reward a number of members of the Anti-Fascist Committee by ordering their executions.
In Englander’s version of the Night of the Murdered Poets, the number of Soviet Jews gunned down has grown from 13 to 27. Nevertheless, the author gives speaking parts to only four of the doomed prisoners; though products of Englander’s imagination, they are representative in one way or another of the actual Soviet Yiddish intelligentsia. These four Yiddish writers find themselves in a small cell of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison on the last night of their lives. Vasily Korinsky is an arrogant man who greatly overrates his literary ability, a man with such limited self-knowledge that he fails to recognize the degree to which he has been collaborating with Stalin’s regime.
Moishe Bretzky is an undisciplined drunkard, glutton and womanizer. Nevertheless, he has the soul of a poet and the uncanny ability to find just the right words to express the beauty buried within his grotesquely fat body. By way of contrast, Y. Zunser is the 81-year-old “wise man” of the group. Despite receiving considerable recognition for his achievements as a Yiddish writer, Zunser manages to retain an admirable humility and self-restraint under the impossible conditions of a Soviet prison.
The central character in Englander’s story, the 27th man, is Pinchas Pelovitz, a talented Yiddish writer who has never published a single word nor earned a single cent, for that matter. A classic example of the head-in-the clouds Luftmensch, he subsists in a small room in a nondescript inn which his parents, once they were too old to continue managing it, sold “at a ridiculously low price – provided the new owners would leave the boy his room and feed him when he was hungry.” Clearly, since he had published absolutely nothing, Pinchas does not find himself in prison for writing subversive material that would implicate him as being an enemy of the state. Rather, he is soon to be executed as a result of some minor clerical error, yet another casualty of the blind and savagely inefficient Soviet bureaucracy.
Throughout his long night in the cell, Pinchas continues to work on his story within the story: “The morning that Mendel Muskatev awoke ...;” since he cannot write down his words, he must keep composing and revising the text in his head. Just before he is led to his death along with his three cellmates, Pinchas recites his completed story to his fellow writers – an artistic triumph, but, ironically, “a tale to be extinguished along with the teller.”
The tale told by Pinchas Pelovitz just moments before his execution is an echo of so many tales that were extinguished along with their tellers on that fateful and fatal Night of the Murdered Poets.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.